Natalie Zemon Davis is a leading European historian, a pioneer in feminist studies, and one of the first women to assume a senior position in academic life. In 1987, when she served as president of the American Historical Association, the largest professional organization of historians in the United States, she became only the second woman ever to hold that post. Davis’s work has enriched historical understanding by challenging the boundaries of scholarly inquiry and broadening the scope of the historical profession.
She graduated from Smith College in 1949, earned a master’s degree from Radcliffe College in 1950, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1959. She began her teaching career at Brown University (1959–1963) and has held faculty positions at the University of Toronto (1963–1971) and the University of California at Berkeley (1971–1977). Davis joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1978, where she was the Henry Charles Lea professor of history from 1981 until her retirement in 1996. Davis was the Northrop Frye professor of literary theory at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1996. She has written six books, co-authored one and co-edited two. She has also published over seventy articles.
She grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Detroit, Michigan. She attended the Kingswood School for Girls, where she was one of only a few Jewish students. Her interest in history, as well as her leftist political allegiances, began to develop in high school and grew stronger in her college years. As a student at Smith College in the late 1940s, she participated in several political organizations, ranging from Marxist discussion groups to campaigns against racial discrimination. At the same time, as an honor student at Smith, she began to nurture her passion for historical research.
While still in college, Natalie Zemon married Chandler Davis, then a graduate student in mathematics. After completing college, she began her graduate studies at Harvard University, where she pursued social and cultural history and learned the fundamentals of archival research. In 1950, Davis continued her graduate work at the University of Michigan, while her husband accepted a position on the faculty.
The couple remained politically active, and both suffered the repercussions of the 1950s anticommunist backlash. Chandler Davis refused to sign the university’s required anticommunist oath, and in 1953 was brought to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His refusal to cooperate in the government witch-hunts resulted in his being dismissed from the faculty, blacklisted within the profession, and briefly imprisoned. Shortly before her husband’s firing, Davis had spent several months in France, a period she described as initiating her “lifelong love affair with the archives.” After returning from Europe, the government confiscated both the Davises’ passports, making it impossible for her to continue any research abroad. Forced by circumstance to revamp her research agenda, Davis turned her attention to rare book collections in the United States. Throughout her career, Davis has continually broadened the intellectual scope of her work, examining the categories of class, gender, and religion, and employing the methodological tools of history, anthropology, and literature within her scholarly repertoire.
Davis’s early work explored the Protestant-dominated printing industry in sixteenth-century Lyon and set the stage for her investigation of the complex intersection of class, religion, and consciousness in early modern Europe. Her first book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975), was a collection of essays covering a vast array of topics, including gender, social class, literacy, and religious culture in the early modern period. Many of her essays have become classics in the study of gender and social history. Davis has always displayed a remarkable ability to draw broad historical conclusions from the small details of daily life. In The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), Davis used sixteenth-century court records to craft a dramatic and revealing tale about Bertrande of Artigat and the impostor who posed as her husband, Martin Guerre. The book was widely read, and the story was popularized in an acclaimed film, made with Davis’s contribution as historical consultant. In Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987), Davis again brings archival sources to life, describing how common people accused of crimes explained their actions as they sought royal pardon. In a process Davis labeled “self-fashioning,” she demonstrates how individuals of different classes, gender, and social status constructed meaning, identity, and culture. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995) explores the lives of Glückel of Hameln, Marie de l’Incarnation, and Maria Sibylla Merian. In her examination of Glückel, the only Jewish woman among the three she studies in the book, Davis interprets Glückel’s complex roles as businesswoman, wife, and mother. The corpus of Natalie Davis’s work demonstrates her intellectual range and breadth, her ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries, and her innovative historical style.
Davis has always displayed a strong interest in the political and professional dimensions of the historical enterprise. As a young professor at the University of Toronto and the mother of three children, she pressed the university to make provisions for child care and recognize the needs of female employees and graduate students. Davis has also been vocal about the need for historians to conceive their work broadly, and not as part of an enclosed professional discourse. In her 1987 presidential address to the American Historical Association, Davis advanced the notion of history as dialogue. “My image of history would have at least two bodies in it,” she explained, “at least two persons talking, arguing, always listening to the other as they gestured at their books.”
While Davis’s work has not been centered on Jewish issues, she has explored Jewish subjects in her research and cited her Jewish background as a factor shaping her identity as a historian. She recalled that feelings of being an outsider in the majority culture prompted her curiosity about social construction and identity. As a Jew and a woman, Davis gravitated toward exposing and bringing to life the histories of those groups often suppressed in traditional historical narratives. Her new edition of Gotthold Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise was published in 2002. Natalie Davis has emerged as one of the foremost historians of the twentieth century. Her scholarship and intellectual creativity have expanded the scope of historical inquiry, elicited new types of questions, and prodded the limits of research methodology. Davis’s work has enhanced the study of gender, class, culture, religion, art, and literature, and helped to place all of those categories under the broad rubric of history. In addition to her many contributions to the historical profession, she has written in an accessible style and addressed contemporary issues, giving her ideas a wide audience beyond the limited realm of historians.
SELECTED WORKS BY NATALIE ZEMON DAVIS
“Anthropology and History in the 1980s: The Possibilities of the Past.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12, No. 2 (Autumn 1981): 267–275; Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987); “Ghosts, Kin and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France.” Daedalus 106, No. 2 (Spring 1977): 87–114; The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (The Curti Lectures) (2000); A History of Women in the West: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, by N. Z. Davis et al. (1993); “History’s Two Bodies.” Presidential Address, American Historical Association. American Historical Review 93, No. 1 (February 1988): 1–30; Davis, N. Z., and William J. Connell, eds. Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” by Niccolo Machiavelli. (2004); Davis, N. Z., and Ronald Schechter, eds. Nathan the Wise, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. (2002); The Return Of Martin Guerre (1983); “The Sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth-Century Lyon.” Past And Present 90 (February 1981): 40–70; Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (2002); Society And Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (1975); Women in the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995); “‘Women’s History’ in Transition: The European Case.” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring–Summer 1976): 83–93.
Diefendorf, Barbara B., and Carla Hesse, eds. Culture and Identity in Early Modern Europe (1500–1800): Essays in Honor of Natalie Zemon Davis (1993); “Natalie Zemon Davis.” In Visions of History: Interviews with E.P. Thompson ... by Marho, edited by Henry Abelov et al. (1983); Le Retour de Martin Guerre [The Return of Martin Guerre]. Daniel Vigne, director. Société française de production cinématographique, producer. Paris, May 1982. New York, June 1983.
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Wenger, Beth. "Natalie Zemon Davis." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 19, 2020) <https://qa.jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/davis-natalie-zemon>.